It’s no secret that the farming life can be hard work. What is often kept quiet, however, is the strain on farmers’ mental health as a result. Rachel Hicks reports.
For farmers, the general day-to-day situation of long hours, isolation and financial pressure can be stressful enough, but in the face of sudden and uncontrollable factors like adverse weather conditions, the loss of vital chemical treatments and a difficult political climate with an unstable trade system, their vulnerabilities are particularly apparent.
However, despite these challenges giving rise to a huge mental and physical load, there seems to be a long-standing stigma when it comes to talking about mental health issues, particularly in the farming culture. This means that many people have a limited understanding of the issues, making it difficult for them to recognise the signs or to talk about their concerns to family, peers or professionals.
According to research by the Farm Safety Foundation, four out of five young farmers (under 40) believe that mental health is the biggest hidden problem today. The DPJ Foundation in Wales has published an even more shocking statistic – one agricultural worker in the UK takes their own life each week. That’s 52 deaths per year.
In 2018, the Farm Safety Foundation launched the Mind Your Head campaign, alongside the Yellow Wellies Who Would Fill Your Boots initiative – both of which aim to ensure the next generation of farmers is equipped with the skills and knowledge to live well in order to farm well. More recently, the Farming Community Network (FCN) announced the new online service ‘Farmwell’. Free for all to use, it provides ready access to a wide range of support and help to anyone who may need it. FCN chief executive Charles Smith said: “As an organisation that has been supporting Britain’s farming community for almost 25 years, we now plan to be even more focussed on helping farmers build personal and business resilience.”
Aarun Naik (www.strong-heart.co.uk) is a counsellor and agri-psychotherapist with a background in the farming industry. As a 2015 Nuffield Farming Scholar, Aarun published a report entitled, ‘Supporting farmer wellbeing: addressing mental health in agriculture and horticulture.’ Farmers Guide asked Aarun if there had been any developments in this area since his 2016 report, to which he replied: “The main thing I would say is that we are now beginning to see a real move towards acknowledging mental health as one of the significant challenges facing the UK farming community. With this there seems to
be a growing willingness as an industry to talk about the issue and start to question how we can address the challenge.
“For instance, the leaders of major organisations such as the NFU are becoming really engaged in this debate, which we would not have seen five years ago. We have also seen the creation of the Farm Safety Foundation as a national organisation dedicated to supporting the physical and mental wellbeing of the UK farmers. One strand of my own work involves delivering workshops in mental health awareness, stress management and resilience for farmers and agri-professionals across the country. This year I have seen a real increase in demand for such training and a diverse range of professions from farming and rural trades wanting to engage and learn more.”
The general consensus is that, in order to help farmers who may be quietly struggling, the industry needs to talk about mental health more openly in order to erode some of the taboo that’s built up over the years, as well as making it easier and more convenient for people to ask for help. For example, livestock markets such as Melton Mowbray have diversified to offer drop-in clinics to make seeking help more convenient to farmers who work long hours and can’t always plan ahead in terms of appointments. The DPJ Foundation in Wales funds counsellors to visit farms and deliver counselling on the farm premises. Of course, it’s also important to develop systems aimed at preventing mental health issues in the first place. Some land-based colleges are ensuring they educate the future generations in this area, equipping them with the skills and understanding to manage their mental health and wellbeing, which is key when it comes to facing the stresses of a farming career in the future.
What farmers need first and foremost is to be encouraged to acknowledge the importance of looking after themselves – both physically and mentally – in order to be able to look after their farm and family. The same level of dedication should be given to this as it is to livestock, crops and machinery. As Aarun concludes: “It would be great to get to a point where issues such as stress and mental health are spoken about easily and openly as some of the other, more familiar, everyday farming challenges.”
If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, you can access free, impartial and confidential support from both the Farming Community Network & RABI, as well as RSABI (Scotland) and the Addington Fund (Housing Support) via Farming Help. Tel: 0300 011 1999 (7am-11pm) www.farminghelp.co.uk.